With heavy smoke from regional fires lifting, so too are the spirits of the heavy hitters who arrived to qualify in record-setting fashion as the landmark 50th annual National Championship Air Races begin with six classes of racing at Stead Field near Reno.
Fourteen of the most radical vintage piston-powered airplanes have entered the Warbird Class (formerly Unlimited), combining both stock and modified World War II fighters, including “Strega,” “Voodoo,” “Rare Bear” and “Precious Metal.”
Returning champion, Steven Hinton Jr. established the pole position Monday with a first-round qualifying speed of 492.699 mph flying “Voodoo,” a modified P-51 Mustang similar to “Strega,” in which he flew to a 2012 victory at 477.523 mph.
Former Space Shuttle astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson also qualified above last year’s winning speed at 480.249 mph, flying “232,” a radically modified Hawker Sea Fury while Stewart Dawson in “Rare Bear” is currently third at 474.176 mph. On Tuesday, Sherman Smoot, Brian Sanders and Curt Brown also qualified well in excess of the 400 mark, setting the stage for a competitive Gold championship race Sunday.
All eyes are now on Matt Jackson flying “Strega,” a P-51 easily capable of 500 mph laps who has yet to qualify. Both Hinton Jr. and Jackson are seasoned champions.
Other classes are seeing similar trends with increased speeds and innovation from pilots and aircraft designs.
The Biplane Class is fielding 17 entrants this year, featuring mostly Pitts S-1 types with a few specialty-built Mong racers reaching early-morning speeds in excess of 200 mph. Tom Aberle of Fallbrook is currently the top qualifier at 259.444 mph.
The Formula One Class has 15 entrant, all powered by the Continental 0-200 engine and fixed-pitch propeller, reaching speeds over 250 mph. Steve Senegal of San Bruno holds the latest pole position at 254.858 mph in “Endeavor,” a sleek specialty-built Arnold AL-6 racer.
The Sport Class that showcases the innovation of high-tech kit-built airplanes has 32 entrants. The popular category is currently seeing speeds ranging from 205.271 mph to Jeff LaVelle’s posted 403.059 mph in his Glassair 3 from Mukilteo, Wash.
Twelve vintage jets are registered for the Jet Class, featuring mostly L-39 trainers as well as the British Provost and Vampire designs. Jet Class speeds for 2013 range from 334.913 mph to Rick Vandam of Reno qualifying at 509.817 mph in “American Spirit” Tuesday.
Nineteen vintage AT-6s are slated to compete in their class of basically stock World War II trainers. Contest Committee Chairman and pace pilot Jim Booth of Grass Valley reports that minor airframe modifications and individual pilot skill are resulting in qualifying speeds between 197.782 mph and last year’s champion, Nick Macy of Tulelake qualifying at 243.722 mph in “Six Cat” Tuesday. Macy, who shattered qualifying and race lap records in 2012 hopes to tie Eddy Van Fossen and his seven AT-6 Gold victories for 2013.
Landmark excitement is also planned with the largest variety of nostalgic, exotic and aerobatics aircraft performances to thrill fans for four days beginning tomorrow.
In addition to racing, Reno/Stead Airport will host top names in aerobatics and exhibition flying to include the Patriots Jet Demonstration Team, Clay Lacy, Michael Goulian, David Martin, Kent Pietsch, “Smoke-N-Thunder Jet Car,” Jim Peitz and a one-of-a-kind jet-powered man, Yves “Jet Man” Rossy using a carbon-Kevlar jetwing with four engines.
The 50th annual Reno National Championship Air Races and Show will take place Thursday through Sunday at the Stead Airport located 10 miles north of Reno. General and reserved seating tickets can be purchased at the gate.
For information, visit http://airrace.org.